Threat Con Series, Level 4: Which Eastern Conference bottom dwellers could surpass the Cavs sooner than you think?

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Their playoff drought spans a combined 10 years. Neither can claim a winning record this decade. And they all picked in the top-eight of the 2023 Draft.

Still, all three of the Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers warrant monitoring on Cleveland’s championship radar. These teams make up the outermost tier of’s Threat Con radar, which will dissect a different group of Eastern Conference teams each day this week based on their readiness to muddy Cleveland’s contention hopes.

The Threat Con radar operates similarly to the U.S. government’s, which describes DEFCON 4 as “above normal readiness” for combat, including “increased intelligence and enhanced security measures.”

Translation: The Cavs are rightfully chasing bigger Eastern Conference fish than Indiana, Detroit and Orlando. But they shouldn’t ignore the young, talented rosters those teams are building behind Cleveland.

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Indiana Pacers (35-47 in 2022-23)

Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton could be the foundation of a high-level offense under coach Rick Carlisle.AP

The Pacers cracked that list in large part because they’ve found a worthy franchise pillar in All-Star guard Tyrese Haliburton, who signed a five-year extension that could be worth $260 million earlier this month.

Haliburton earned that contract by averaging career highs in points (20.2) and assists (10.2) per game last season. His assist figure was good for second in the league. He ranked seventh among guards in true shooting percentage (62.7%), which accounts for free throws and adds weight to 3-point shooting. And Indiana went 28-28 with Haliburton in the lineup, a hint that the franchise is closer to contention than their overall record (35-47) suggested.

Coach Rick Carlisle knows how to prepare players for that jump. Carlisle has posted more 50-win seasons (seven) than losing seasons (six) during his 22-year career, and he’s done it with a variety of rosters. Carlisle’s Pacers teams of the mid-2000s ranked first, 11th, fourth and ninth in defensive rating during his tenure. His 2019-20 Dallas Mavericks broke the NBA record for offensive rating.

2022-23 Pacers ranked in the top-10 in both. But Haliburton’s shooting and unselfishness serve as the foundation of a high-level offense. And the Pacers drafted Houston forward Jarace Walker, perhaps the most versatile defender in his rookie class, eighth overall. Walker and Pacers center Myles Turner, who ranked fourth in blocks per game (2.3) last season, could form an impressive defensive partnership.

One Pacers X-factor to watch: 2022 lottery pick Bennedict Mathurin, who averaged 16.7 points per game. game as a rookie. Indiana’s two biggest weaknesses are perimeter defense and scoring inside the 3-point arc. His athleticism could improve both if he develops as the Pacers prospect, which could take a few seasons. But don’t be surprised if Mathurin, Haliburton and Carlisle stand in Cleveland’s way at the end of the wait.

Detroit Pistons (17-65 in 2022-23)

Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey

The Detroit Pistons envision a dynamic backcourt with Cade Cunningham, left, and Jaden Ivey.

Detroit was the worst team in the East last season and has not won 45 games since LeBron James’ first stint in Cleveland (2007-08). But Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren and Ausar Thompson have arrived to change those trends … eventually.

The Pistons entered last season with the NBA’s ninth-youngest roster and added two more first-round rookies — Thompson and Houston guard Marcuss Sasser — this summer. Detroit is hoping that veterans like Joe Harris, Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks can stem the learning curves of the youngsters — and provide gaps — for a team that has averaged 20 wins over the past four seasons.

The best version of Detroit will beat teams with a mix of athleticism and playmaking. Cunningham and Ivey each averaged over five assists during their rookie seasons (Cunningham played just 12 games in 2022-23), and Thompson averaged 6.1 last season for Overtime Elite. Thompson, Ivey and Duren are elite athletes who can pressure the rim and have the tools to become quality defenders. The question in Detroit is whether either will shoot well enough to co-exist.

Duren attempted a 3-pointer in his only season in Memphis. Thompson shot 29.8% from 3 at OTE (and 66.2% from the free throw line). And neither Cunningham nor Ivey has hit 35% in the NBA yet.

At least two — and likely three — of those players will need to develop into reliable long-range shooters for a good fit on the court. Cunningham shot 40% during his lone college season and is shooting 84.4% on free throws in the pros, both of which are good signs. And Ivey shot 34.3% last season on over eight attempts per game.

Who fills the third hole? The Cavs saw last postseason how difficult it is to score with multiple non-shooters on the court. And both Duren and Thompson project as long-term shooters. But if either of them even comes close to averaging, the Pistons will be in line with the kind of big, athletic shot creators that run the league (and that Cleveland lacks).

Big if, but that’s why Detroit paid new coach Monty Williams a $78.5 million contract this offseason. Williams won five playoff series during his final three seasons with the Suns. How long will it take him to win his first with the Pistons?

Orlando Magic (34-48 in 2022-23)

The Magic went 28-24 from Dec. 7 to April 2, the equivalent of 44 wins over a full season, with a roster that entered the season fourth-youngest in the league (23.58 years old on average). If the test proves legitimate, Orlando could be the most dangerous non-playoff team from last season’s East.

Start with Rookie of the Year Paolo Banchero, who produced a stat line — 20 points, 3.5 assists and 6.5 rebounds per game — that has been replicated by only eight other rookies in NBA history. Three of those eight—Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Larry Bird—became Finals MVPs. And at 6-foot-10, Banchero fits the mold of history for such successes.

Third-year stud Franz Wagner (6-foot-9) gives Orlando another super-sized creator who can cause matchup problems on the perimeter. And overall, nine of Orlando’s 15 players are former lottery picks from the last six drafts.

Can second-year coach Jamahl Mosely mold all that talent into one unit? Orlando ranked 24th in assist rate last season and 18th in defensive rating, both of which are not surprising growing pains for an inexperienced roster. But the Magic didn’t sign any veterans this offseason. And ninth-year veterans Gary Harris and Michael Carter-Williams are among the Gen-Z studs trying to make a name for themselves in the league.

That makes role acceptance — and by association, chemistry — a significant issue for Orlando’s young core. Ditto for 3-point shooting, where the Magic ranked 24th last season.

But those concerns downplay the massive success Orlando achieved last season: It found a star. The Magic increased their win total by 12 from the previous season with two significant rotation changes: A healthier Markelle Fultz and Banchero.

He and Wagner are the future. The rest of Orlando’s players will either fend for themselves or be replaced by veterans. And once the Magic find the right fits around the starting wings, a playoff spot won’t be far behind.

This is the one team on this list that could challenge the Cavs — maybe in a first-round series, but still — as soon as next season.

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